Chapter 5: How To Diagnose Gasket Failures Quickly

Learn how to diagnose gasket failures quickly.

The gasket is but one of many reasons a bolted flange joint connection can leak. Even when all the complex inter-related components of a bolted joint flange connection work in perfect harmony, the single most important factor leading to success or failure of that bolted flange connection, will be giving attention to the proper installation and assembly procedures by the person installing the gasket. If done properly, the assembly will remain leak-free for the target life expectancy.

Seal failures can occur when any component of the flange, fastener or gasket system, is not performing correctly. The normal result is leakage from the joint, which may be virtually undetectable at first, and then build-up over time, or may be a sudden catastrophic failure. Leakage is mainly observed when the fasteners fail to maintain their clamping function, usually when they provide too little force – but occasionally when they exert too much force.
The experience of most gasket manufacturers suggests that a very high percentage of bolted flange connections that leak (approximately 75 percent, 1992 NPRA #36 WRC 391) do so as a result of non-gasket related factors. These factors usually relate to installation and assembly problems and limitations.

One important factor in diagnosing gasket failures is to look for the root causes of the failure. This process of “failure analysis” is extremely helpful to identify the root cause of premature failure. This process can also offer some alternatives to fix the underlying issue(s). Without examining the gasket, the bolted component and the maintenance practices, often the same type of failure can happen again.

Some of the most frequent issues dealing with the installation of a gasket, the assembly of a flange and how to diagnose gasket failures :

A. Diagnose Gasket Failures: Under Loading of the Gasket

Under loading of the gasket is the most common reason for a leak in a bolted flange joint assembly. In most cases, it is caused when the joint is not able to generate enough gasket seating stress on the gasket material and also maintaining this stress throughout the temperature and pressure conditions of the application. Low gasket seating stresses can occur from poorly applying the correct load to the gasket. It can also be caused due to the condition of the bolted connection; such as not being able to transfer the correct load to the gasket from the bolts because of misaligned flanges.
All gasket materials are somewhat porous, which can be a pathway for leakage to occur. Manufacturers will recommend a minimum seating stress that will allow the gasket to do two things: properly fill into the flange serrations and voids and by compressing the gasket in between two flanges, eliminating pores by removing the pockets or voids.

Signs of under loading of a gasket:
• Gasket compression pattern has little or no flange serration marks on the gasket face, or little change in gasket thickness after being compressed

Poor bolting procedures including:

  • Torque not used to apply gasket seating stress
  • Corroded bolting or bolting in poor condition. Bolts should be in new condition to reduce the risk of an improperly applied bolt load. Re-use of bolts will cause less load transfer than new bolts, due to of the deformation of bolt threads and corrosion. Fasteners in the field tend to corrode unevenly, resulting in the inability to create even loads the next time they are tightened
  • Not using the proper anti-seize on bolt threads, nuts and flat washers. Poor anti-seize usage can cause a 50% increase in the loss of load applied to the bolted flange joint assembly
  • Not using a hardened flat washer. Having the nut surface on rough surfaces can result in poor bolt load transfer
  • Over-stretching of bolting can cause a yielded bolt that does not apply bolt load and can result in possible rupture
  • Torque does not equal bolt load and can be deceiving if not following the proper bolting procedures. The applied torque is reduced significantly, resulting in insufficient bolt load or stress on the gasket
  • Not calculating torque based on gasket manufacturer’s minimum seating stresses
  • Excessive pipe strain and flange misalignment (whether axial, angular or radial)
  • Poorly designed flanges (gasket area and total bolt load) not providing enough bolt load during thermal cycling. These are usually custom flanges (not designed to any standard) and from their actual dimensions. They do not provide adequate seating stresses to compensate for thermal growth while the bolts are heated

Changes that can remedy these issues:

  • Having a plant wide bolting procedure that takes into effect good bolting procedures as referenced in ASME PCC-1
  • Adding more expansion joints to handle pipe strain
  • Have engineering review the flange design issues and change gasket dimensions and/or possible use of bold load retaining devices (stretch bolts, collars or flange springs)

B. Diagnose Gasket Failures: Uneven Compression of the Gasket

Uneven compression of the gasket frequently results from not using the proper torque pattern and too few passes when initially assembling the bolted flange connection. Gaskets are often fully compressed on one side, while the other side has low-to-moderate compression, indicating the bolts were tightened on one side of the flange first and then tightened on the other side. Since gaskets rely on both friction and compressive force (seating stress) to prevent gasket blowouts from occurring, this can become a severe safety issue.

Signs of uneven compression of a gasket:

  • Measured differences in compression from side to side on the gasket
  • Flange serration impression differences around the gasket
  • Stress cracks on one side or the other 
  • Uneven Gasket Compression

Changes that can remedy these issues:

  • Having a plant wide bolting procedure that takes into effect good bolting procedures as referenced in ASME PCC-1, which includes a bolting pattern. This would ideally include 20 to 30%, 50 to 70% and 100% of the target torque. Followed by one final rotational round of tightening at 100% of the final target torque. During these rounds of tightening, it should be noted that using a gap tool or gauge, helps the installer identify uneven areas of compression, before it is too late; it is not correctable during the gasket installation process
  • Dealing with pipe strain in the plant to handle flange misalignment

C. Diagnose Gasket Failures: Over Compression of the Gasket

Over compression of gaskets, especially soft gaskets, will crush the gasket causing premature failure. It is generally not recommended to exceed 15,000 psi (103.4 MPa) for soft gasket materials, such as compressed non-asbestos, PTFE and flexible graphite. Metallic gaskets, such as grooved metal gaskets with covering layers and spiral wound gaskets have a much higher compressive strength up to 30,000 psi (206.8 MPa). However, for spiral wound gaskets, there can be some misinterpretation in regards to the centering ring acting as a compression stop. It should be noted that ASME B16.20 recommends the maximum thickness compression allowable for spiral wound gaskets with and without inner rings. The stress required to compress the gasket winding to the centering ring is typically more that then maximum recommended value; therefore, it can cause inwards buckling.

Signs of over compression of a gasket:

Soft gaskets
Gasket damage due to crushing, which includes cracking and ripping

Gasket Over Compression

  • Gasket appears to extrude out of the flange or appears to be an irregular shape.
    Metallic gaskets
  • Inward buckling of spiral wound gaskets without inner ring. Over tightening of spiral wound gaskets can also decrease the “spring-like” properties of the metal windings against the flange. That can also increase the probability of leaks within the flange

Spiral Wound Gasket – Inwards Buckling

• Imprint of flange on the guide ring

Changes that can remedy these issues:
• Having a plant wide bolting procedure that takes into effect good bolting procedures as referenced in ASME

D. Diagnose Gasket Failures: Re-use/Double Compression

Important characteristics when choosing a gasket involve both compression and recovery properties of the material. When the gasket is compressed, it fills the voids, serrations and irregularities in the flange. Since most soft gaskets have rubber used in the product formulation, this decreases the product’s ability to rebound or recover once being compressed. Especially as the service temperature in which the gasket is used, becomes elevated. Gasket materials do not recover to 100% of their original thickness and the rebound or recovery rate drastically decreases each time the material is compressed.
Signs of re-use of a gasket:
• Gaskets with multiple compression lines/double patterns

Gasket with Multiple Compressions

Changes that can remedy this issue:
• Stop the re-use of gaskets

E. Diagnose Gasket Failures: Not Enough Conformability/Compressibility to Fill Flange Irregularities

It is recommended using the thinnest gasket possible that will allow maintaining a proper seal. This is extremely important for smooth or machined surfaces, as there are no serrations for the gasket to fill. This enables the gasket to resist being pushed out by occurring forces. Due to these forces, it should be noted, for thinner gaskets higher seating stresses must be used to prevent blowouts from occurring. However, in some cases, a thicker gasket may be necessary due to surface finish or irregularities. These can be pits, scores or marks (see Figure 5 and 6, Chapter 1) and this can occur during a flange’s lifespan from gasket installation to removal. Softer materials can also be good choices; however, again it may be necessary to apply higher seating stresses to achieve a good seal and resist the possibility of a gasket blowout. Another important factor is gasket creep relaxation, which is determined by a percentage of overall gasket thickness. The thicker the gasket material, the greater the creep relaxation in that material. What this means is that as the gasket relaxes, the gasket thickness decreases which can result in a loss of gasket seating stress.

Signs of poor conformability/compressibility of a gasket:
• Very little change in overall gasket thickness after being installed in between the flanges
• Very faint or no sign at all of flange serrations imprinted on the gasket

Poor Gasket Conformability

Changes that can remedy this issue:
• Decrease the gasket area to increase the gasket seating load
• Choose a softer material; if applicable i.e. chemical resistance and temperature.
• Choose thicker material; however it should be noted that gasket creep increases with material thickness.

F. Diagnose Gasket Failures: Chemical Attack of the Gasket

Gasket selection must be made with all service conditions in mind, including temperature, pressure and media. Misapplication of gaskets can also be an issue, as it is often caused by confusion in the storeroom about which gasket to use. However, not all gaskets are made entirely from a single material and it is very important that the chemical resistance and all of the components, such as the binder or filler that the product is composed of, be verified. Some of the more common materials used in chemical service can include rubber, elastomers, compressed elastomer-based fiber sheet gasketing, PTFE, flexible graphite, metals and other semi-metallic composites. Chemical resistance of materials can also change with increasing temperature, so it is very important to know the application details and to consult with the gasket manufacturer if unsure.

Signs of a gasket chemical attack:

  • Gasket cracking (becoming brittle),
  • Softening of material
  • Tearing, missing or erosion of material
  • Material discoloration

Gasket Chemical Attack

Changes that can remedy this issue:

  • Review all chemical compatibly of gaskets being used in chemical service
  • Use visual aids in storeroom to highlight what gaskets should be used in what service
  • Consolidation of materials and reduce the amount of sheets in inventory to eliminate the risk of choosing the incorrect material.

G. Diagnose Gasket Failures: Hardening of Elastomers

Elastomers, such as rubber, that are found in the binder for soft gasket material, will harden over time. Proper storage conditions are very important elements, such as UV lighting, humidity, steam and temperature which can accelerate the hardening process. Steam is a powerful hydrolyser and it has a very powerful effect on polymers and fibers. This can change the state of these products and even in some cases cause the polymers to become very brittle.

Signs of hardening of elastomers:

  • Gaskets cracking (becoming brittle)

Changes that can remedy this issue:

  • Review chemical compatibility of gaskets used in specific service
  • Use visual aids in storeroom to highlight what gaskets should be used in what service
  • Review storage requirements from Gasket Manufacturers

H. Lubrication Used on a Gasket’s Surface
A poor installation practice involves putting anti-seize or other lubricants on gasket surfaces. Lubricants are used to make flat gaskets easier to remove or hold in place during assembly. The use of lubricants on gaskets interferes with the sealing ability, by creating a barrier. Also the lubricant can breakdown the gasket material, causing gasket failure by a chemical attack. On flexible graphite, it can alter the compressive strength of the gasket. Lubricants on gaskets should never be used since they hinder long term flange sealability.
Signs of lubricants used during installation:

  • Powder or residue on gasket surface
  • Pits on gasket surface

Changes that can remedy these issues:

  • Having a plant wide bolting procedure, which includes good
    bolting procedures as referenced in ASME PCC-1, which includes the recommendation to never use lubricants on gasketing surfaces